Young People and Advocates Use NYTD Data to Shape Policy and Practice

Research BriefChild WelfareOct 15 2020

For more information on the National Youth in Transition Database (NYTD)—and on what NYTD data can tell researchers, policymakers, and other stakeholders about the experiences and well-being of older youth in foster care as they transition to adulthood—click here.

The data provided through the National Youth in Transition Database (NYTD) is critical to shaping the services and supports available to young people as they transition out of foster care and begin to live independently. While earlier briefs in this series have highlighted ways in which the research community can use the NYTD data, survey administrators (state and federal) should also strive for a better understanding of how young people and advocates—key stakeholder groups—use the data to shape policies and practices. This brief focuses on young people with foster care experience and experience taking the NYTD survey; these young people, in turn, rely on the data in their own advocacy efforts. Throughout the brief, we include quotes from young people to attest to the importance of NYTD data and to highlight suggested improvements.

NYTD data drives visibility and advocacy.

Young people not only represent the NYTD survey participants; they also use the data in a variety of ways. Many young people advocate for better policies and practices informed by the NYTD data, serve as federal NYTD reviewers monitoring states’ compliance with NYTD reporting requirements, and help administer and coordinate the NYTD survey in their states. NYTD data is needed for advocacy efforts, and young people highlight that the survey is an important way for their peers in foster care to contribute to the evidence base and, importantly, to feel seen and heard.

When asked why NYTD is important to them, the young people we interviewed emphasized the value of data that collects the unique experiences of young people making the transition from foster care to adulthood:

From someone who took the NYTD survey, I think it’s important that young people realize that their experiences are being noticed, being documented, and being used for something.”

“Growing recognition of the value of partnering with young people […] validates the experience. When I first saw the NYTD data, [I] was like, ‘Oh, what I went through wasn’t that strange.’”

“Intentionality matters. And you need the data to convince people that the system needs to be better and that the issues are happening. It’s an important conversation-starter at the state level.”

“Noticing from interviews with 17-year-olds that someone cares about the data. I frame it that the system could be better, and it’s really important that we capture your experiences.”

NYTD data and the review process inform continuous quality improvement of foster care.

In addition to using NYTD data for federal and local advocacy, young people discussed the importance of involving youth with foster care experience throughout NYTD survey administrations to ensure that the data are collected, analyzed, interpreted, and communicated in a way that captures their experiences. The NYTD review process is a central component of continuous quality improvement (CQI), and young people serve a critical role in these NYTD reviews. The Children’s Bureau (the entity that oversees NYTD implementation) also requires states to involve young people in NYTD administration; one of the most impactful ways to pursue their involvement is through the NYTD review process.

NYTD reviews are designed to ensure states’ compliance with federal NYTD reporting requirements and to identify technical assistance needs of noncompliant states. NYTD review teams are comprised of representatives from the federal government, the relevant state child welfare agency, and young people with lived experience in foster care. Young people who serve as NYTD reviewers are provided in-depth training on the purpose of the data, and on how states should collect and report it. States can replicate the federal CQI process and increase youth engagement in NYTD by hiring young people with lived experience as NYTD coordinators, employing them to recruit participants and administer the survey, and working with them to draft reports and disseminate findings.

The young people we interviewed are trained NYTD reviewers who currently participate in a national initiative to improve practices and policies for young people in foster care. Young people’s experience using the data while advocating for policy and practice changes illuminates several areas for improving NYTD data.

We used the data to seriously drive extension of care. Here we do collection of data a little differently than other states. Where states are required to capture it at [ages] 17, 19, and 21, we capture it every year. So, we could see entry to homelessness for anyone who didn’t have the proper resources to gain housing. So, that was the topic we used to advocate for extension of care: Here are resources young people weren’t able to obtain. We have ways to mediate that.”

“We share the NYTD data with the state foster care youth board, and they use that […]  From an advocate perspective, some of the NYTD data is hard to use, [but] they did use the data to create an intentional pregnancy parenting working group.”

“It is starting to happen, but I don’t think we know the magnitude of what the child welfare system could look like when directly informed by young people themselves. The NYTD Survey is one [approach] and … including them [young people] in the review process and CQI process regularly, to me, can only close the gap between CW practice and the real-life experience that are happening right now.”

“[When recruiting young people to be part of the CQI process] … Treating humans like humans and saying happy birthday and checking in with folks.”

Expansion of data is an opportunity for improvement.

Young people who participate in the NYTD survey and use NYTD data offer important insights to states and advocates on how to expand and revise the current NYTD survey. Young people make clear that, while the current NYTD survey provides a helpful starting point, the usefulness of the data could be strengthened by clarifying existing questions and adding questions that dig deeper into youths’ experiences.

When asked about the strengths and limitations of NYTD, young people reported several barriers that hindered the utility of the data. These ranged from vague questions to a lack of information on important topics such as readiness to age out of care, sexual orientation, gender identity, and social-emotional health:

The questions now are very, very broad. So, the risky behaviors section: It just asks if you’ve had a mental health assessment or therapy, and that’s it, and there’s nothing else about it, like how long, why were you referred, how long were you using [substances].”

I wish NYTD captured gender and sexuality and how youth identify themselves. That’s an area we’re not capturing.”

“The MIDWEST Evaluation had a question that asked young people, ’Are you ready to age out?’ That would be an excellent question to ask especially if there are follow-up [surveys].”

“There should be more questions about access […] even a question to a 19- or 21-year-old: ‘Do you have a driver’s license?’ Just capturing some of the barriers to education and employment. They’re so simple to ask.”

“One of the biggest things I’m advocating for is a social-emotional category for NYTD [to] be added to the employment, education, pregnant/parenting, etc. [sections]. I’ve read compelling reports that social-emotional skills largely dictate how one does in their life, especially when it comes to relationships and employment. Given that many foster youth experience high amounts of trauma, it could be beneficial.”

The young people also shared their thoughts on making the existing data even more powerful by including tailored questions within the specific topics covered in this series: education, employment, and homelessness. They made several specific recommendations.

On employment and education, young people reported wanting more depth on specific needs:

“The biggest thing would be asking outright if there are any barriers getting to and from work or finding employment. If a young person says, ‘Yes I’m employed,’ okay, is there any barrier to get to and from work? Like getting at the economic piece of that. Like, yes, you’re working, but all your money is going to Uber. Maybe some sort of question that discusses really what the barriers are to either maintaining that job or finding a job.”

“More of the why. If youth are choosing community college over four-year, and I really just want to know why […] I want to get more of these to get at that root problem that we address […] There’s so many things that are more than just their classes and the degree.”

When asked about housing and homelessness, young people noted that failing to explicitly ask about “couch surfing”—a common form of housing instability among young people—results in an incomplete picture of housing arrangements:

“I don’t get how you’re not considered homeless if you’re sleeping in a different place every night.”

“Couch-surfing is not normal; it is homelessness. I think we need to affirm that. And affirm to the youth that when you ask about homelessness and attach it [to] the couch-surfing, you realize, oh, that’s me.”

Innovative data collection would lead to better data.

Beyond survey content, we also discussed ways in which NYTD planning and administration could be changed to involve young people in the decision-making process. Having more young people respond to the NYTD survey may improve the data quality by increasing awareness of the survey and ensuring that the survey is relevant for young people. There are also opportunities to utilize developmentally appropriate recruitment techniques and hire young people with lived experience in foster care to guide the recruitment process. According to the young people with whom we spoke, these initiatives are vital to ensuring that questions resonate with their peers and elicit the intended information. Recommendations include the following:

“But I do believe we need to reimagine what we actually want from NYTD and assess if these questions are getting us there. We need to be asking questions that get at the root issues. I had free health insurance for years and never used it, because I didn’t understand how to make a doctors appointment or when to go.”

“Create NYTD Ambassadors. Basically, Young Fellows for [state] NYTD data. They would be compensated (of course) and then would help plan the strategy for the report release, partner to educate stakeholders on the data (including youth board members), help identify the message of the current NYTD data we wish to share, and help create a policy brief connecting the NYTD data to policies [state] advocates are working on.”

“I think states should prioritize having professionals with lived experience in the role as NYTD Coordinator for their states. It is incredibly helpful in analyzing the data and also communicating with young people.”

“I always say to the professionals that I work with [who have] expertise in CW that they are closer to the pulse, they can feel it in their heartbeat, I can hear it in their voices, their families remember them experiencing it.”

While NYTD has limitations, it does represent an important step toward understanding the experiences of young people transitioning out of foster care and into adulthood across the country. In our discussions with young people, the power and potential of the data were clear. NYTD is a useful tool in advocating for better services and supports for young people transitioning out of foster care and into adulthood. When implementing NYTD and making changes to the survey or the process, it is critical to consider all stakeholders (e.g., young people and state child welfare administrators). The young people with whom we spoke provided important insight for improving the existing NYTD survey and planning for its next iteration, resulting in concrete areas for growth and innovative solutions.